I FIRST BECAME AWARE OF BEN MONDER WHILE LISTENING
to bassist Marc Johnson’s Right Brain Patrol in 1992. It was
Monder’s first major recording session, but he nonetheless
clearly distinguished himself from his contemporaries, and
even infused the blues with fresh ideas on one track. Throughout
the intervening years Monder has been recruited to play
on more than 100 albums, worked with such luminaries as Paul
Motian, Jack McDuff, Lee Konitz, Kenny Wheeler, and Maria
Schneider, and released numerous collaborative albums and
four as a leader.
The polytonal and sometimes polyrhythmic
compositions on Monder’s 2005
solo venture, Oceana, so thoroughly transcended
genre classifications that critics
struggled to explain the music while
simultaneously extolling it as a work of
creative genius. Monder’s 2006 collaboration
with pianist Chris Gestrin and
drummer Dylan van der Schyff, The Distance,
was a slightly less confounding work
that explored mostly sparse and atmospheric
musical terrain, with peaks of fiery
passion jutting through every so often.
The following year’s collaboration with
master vocalist and live electronics wizard
Theo Bleckmann, At Night, found
Monder creating sublime soundscapes
supporting lyrics that included mystical
poems by Sufi poet Rumi and “Norwegian
Wood” in addition to originals, with
avant-drummer Satoshi Takeishi contributing
to five tracks.
Monder’s latest release is an entirely
improvised collaboration with tenor saxophonist
Bill McHenry that actually dates
from 2001. Recorded in a single day, Bloom
[Sunnyside] not only illustrates the scope
of the guitarist’s conceptual approach and
technical capabilities, but also the depth,
intensity, and immediacy of his connection
with the Muse.
Whether executing uncanny and often
impossibly difficult single-note lines,
emitting wave upon wave of nearly unfathomable
arpeggiated chords, or abandoning
tonality for the expressiveness of
pure sound, Monder’s playing demonstrates
that there are still uncharted
musical realms to be discovered for those
with the vision and fortitude to do so.
There are quite a few extraordinary guitar
sounds on Bloom. What were you playing
through when you recorded it?
It was pretty much my standard setup
from ten years ago. I played my Ibanez AS-
50 guitar through two amps: my Fender
Princeton and the engineer’s Ampeg B-15
Portaflex bass amp, which sounded great
with guitar. For effects I had a little Lexicon
LXP-1 reverb, a Boss DD-2 delay, a
Rat distortion, a Boss CS-3 compressor,
and an Ernie Ball volume pedal.
Has your rig changed much since then?
I still use the LXP-1, though I had it
upgraded by a guy in California a few years
ago, so it sounds much better. I mostly
just keep it on the Hall setting and adjust
the amount depending on the tune. I also
have a Rat modified by Robert Keeley, a
Fulltone Deja Vibe, an MXR Carbon Copy
analog delay, and the same compressor
and volume pedal as before. Sometimes
I’ll also use an old Boss OC-2 Octave
pedal. I generally play through a Music
Man RD-112 on gigs, and for recording
I’ll use a ’66 blackface Fender Deluxe or
a ’68 silverface Princeton, sometimes
recorded in stereo. Occasionally I’ll use
the Music Man and the Deluxe in stereo
on gigs, which sounds really good.
You’re still playing the AS-50. What is it
about that guitar that’s worked for you for so
I bought it in 1983 because I liked the
way it looked, and because I imagined it
would produce a certain sound. When I
actually got it, however, it didn’t sound
anything like what I’d imagined. But I
kept at it and eventually it started sounding
the way I wanted. So I don’t know if
there’s something going on where you kind of breathe your sound through a guitar
and it starts to do what you want it to,
but it is really easy to play and it has a nice
jazz tone as well as being able to rock out. I
can also bend the neck to change pitch, which
is something I do fairly often.
You also have a nice acoustic that you play on
Yes, a 1936 Martin 018.
One of the most startling aspects of your playing
is your right-hand technique. Describe what
you are doing both when playing with and without
In jazz contexts, where I’m switching
between single-note lines and chords or
comping for myself, I use a hybrid technique
that involves a pick and the three remaining
fingers. One reason I use a pick is that I
have zero chops playing single notes with
my fingers, though I’m not really crazy about
that sound anyway. I fingerpick all of the
solo pieces and most of the more elaborate
band pieces, though, because it is easier just
to grab arpeggiated chords with my right
hand. My technique approaches classical
right-hand technique, but I only use my pinky
when I want to play five notes simultaneously,
and never for playing arpeggios.
What kind of picks do you prefer?
I like the little teardrop-shaped, heavy
gauge D’Andrea picks.
Several of your compositions are polyrhythmic.
What advice would you give players who would like
to learn to play polyrhythmic music?
Learn to tap the polyrhythms out with
your fingers. Experiment with the simplest
ones first: 5 against 4, 7 against 4, 5 against
3, and so on. Once you can tap them with
your fingers it’s a relatively easy jump to
playing them on the guitar.
Some of your compositions, such as “Double
Sun” on Oceana, employ non-standard tunings.
Describe the ways in which you use them.
That piece is in C, with the sixth string
tuned down to C and the fifth string tuned
down to G, so I’m able to get fifths on the
bottom: C, G, D. The idea is the tension
between an implied key of C on the bottom
and a key of A on the top, as well as the
polyrhythms, which are 5 against 3. I only
use non-standard tunings to get specific
sounds for specific pieces. For example, I’m
working on a piece now where the sixth
string is tuned down to C# and the first string
is tuned down to D, so I get a lot of interesting
sounds that I wouldn’t get normally.
I use .013-gauge sets with an unwound .020
third string, so I don’t tune strings up
because I’m afraid of them breaking. And I
almost never improvise with non-standard
tunings just because I’m not smart enough
to do that.
Much of the improvised music on Bloom sounds
composed. Did you discuss it beforehand?
No, we didn’t talk about anything. It was
a long day of recording, and I discarded a lot
of stuff that didn’t work—but except for one
tiny edit on one piece, what you hear are complete
performances exactly as they happened.
I like to think of improvisation as compositionally
as I can, and to have it cohere as much
as possible, developing an idea logically over
time. Of course it doesn’t always work out
that way. I often start playing too many notes,
and the ideas aren’t so clearly defined.
Describe what’s going on inside you when you
I try not to think too much, and to the
extent that I am thinking, I’m trying to edit
out excess. I come at it with the idea that
this is how I’d like to play, and then let the
ideas dictate where they want to go, which
is very similar to composing in real time.
And, of course, I love playing with people
that feed me as many ideas as possible. Also,
a great way to get out of my own head if I’m
feeling out of ideas is to listen to the other
people. For example, I might just listen to
the sound of the ride cymbal or the drums
generally, because they are not pitch specific,
and that will get me out of thinking
about harmonic things.
Is there anything that you do to get yourself
into the right headspace for improvising?
Not really. I probably should. I used to meditate
a lot and whenever I would do that
before a gig, I would always play much better.
Sometimes it helps if I remind myself of
the priorities that I have, such as what I was
just talking about as far as playing compositionally
and simply. Also, I practice a lot,
and the danger of that is I think I have to
play all this stuff that I’ve been working on,
which is a real trap.
What sorts of things do you practice?
Well, first of all, I don’t practice 16 hours
a day as reported in one article [laughs]. That
would be ridiculous. Generally my routine
is to begin with practicing harmonic things,
such as playing through Bach chorales that
I’ve adapted for guitar from the piano score.
Then I just go into various voice-leading
exercises that I’ve devised for myself. One
way I’ve developed a lot of the chords I use
is through structures built on consistent
intervals, and taken through various scales.
Taking a four-note chord as a simple example,
I’ll start on a given note, then go up a
fourth, then a second, and then a fifth, and
that’s that structure, which could have a
sort of suspended sound. Then, depending
on the scale, I could take it up through a
harmonic minor or major scale or whatever,
and that will give me options based on whatever
the relative modes are for that scale.
After that I might work on voice leading
among different structures, so I’m not just
moving things up and down in parallel, to
see where those structures can go. And
finally, I’ll challenge myself by doing this
kind of work through moving harmony
rather than diatonically within one key. If
you think of all the structures you can
devise—from three to six notes—there’s
really quite a lot of potential for work there.
This isn’t an original concept, but I’ve
devised my own approach to it.
The concept may not be original, but what
you’ve done with it certainly is. Your influences
aren’t at all obvious, and more than a little of what
you do appears unprecedented—would you agree?
Although the approach didn’t originate
with me, I guess the way I’ve pursued it is
original, because I came up with my own
ideas and my own ways of following those
ideas. I just responded to whatever sort of
sound ideal I had in my mind and tried to
get there through my own exercises and
other ways of working. So yeah, if that ends
up sounding original, then great.